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Saturday, December 2

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The Mechanics

Technology and Politics Mon Jan 12 2015

Evidence Strongly Suggests CPD Illegally Uses Stingray Technology on Protestors

On Black Friday of 2014, Kristiana Rae Colón — a local Chicago artist recently turned organizer — planned a day of action to honor Mike Brown and protest Black Friday spending. Police surveillance was not really on Colón's mind when she organized the protest and march; her aim was to call attention to the connection between the criminalization of black people and the American capitalist system. But a police-scanner recording from that day reveals what seems to be evidence that Chicago police are illegally accessing data from protestors' phones. And in the recording, Colón is the target of this likely surveillance.

"Apparently someone had gotten access to a police scanner recording where it sounds like [an officer] alongside me referring to me being on my phone, and then asking the person at a remote location whether or not they could tell where I was going," explained Colón. "So the implication is that [the officer] was there, seeing me on my phone, and then asking someone else if they could tell from my phone where I was going."

@SPOTNEWSonIG, a Twitter account that live-tweets information from police scanners, overheard the exchange between the officers that Colón references. What follows is an excerpt from their conversation:

Officer 1800: "One of the girls who's kind of an organizer here, she's been on her phone a lot. You guys picking up any information where they're going possibly?
CPIC: "Yeah, we're keeping an eye on it, we'll let you know if we hear anything."

Chicago's Crime Prevention and Information Center (CPIC) is a fusion center, where two or more law enforcement agencies work together to combat "criminal and terrorist activity." The recording strongly suggests that the officer in the field, "officer 1800," was asking someone at CPIC to access content on Colón's phone.

If the CPD were accessing phone content of protesters, they would be using "Stingray" technology to do so. A Stingray device — the commonly used term for an International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catcher — functions as a fake cell tower. It intercepts phone activity as cell phones seek the nearest cell tower, giving law enforcement access to information from any active phones in reach of the device (typically around a 1.5 kilometer radius).

The identity of the officer in the above exchange has been unknown. But another segment of the audio may give a clue as to his identity. On the recording he is referred to as "officer 1800," and another officer, "officer 41," uses his first name:

Officer 41: "Bill, I want to give you a call on your cell."
Dispatcher: "1800, did you copy?"
Officer 1800: "Yeah I did."

When I spoke with Colón, she mentioned that the officer trailing her that day was "Commander Dunn." William Dunn is the commander of the 18th District of Chicago. As Bill is a common nickname for William, this exchange suggests that it was Commander Dunn who saw Colón on her cell and asked remote officers if they could lift information from it.

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Rachel Anspach / Comments (1)

Open Government Wed Jan 22 2014

Smart Chicago and Cook County Join Forces to Make Open Data More Transparent

Smart Chicago Collaborative and Cook County are partnering up to expand open data and make it easier for Chicagoans to access it.

"Entering into this partnership with Smart Chicago, will help the County find ways to improve the lives of residents through technology," Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said.

Under the two year agreement, which begins on February 1, Smart Chicago will assist the County in publishing open data sets and developing open data applications. According to a Cook County blog post, "collaborating with Smart Chicago will increase the County's ability to find, clean and link data, such as crime and health statistics, to the County's website."

Informing the contract are two documents-- the Cook County Open Government Plan [PDF] and the Cook County Open Data Ordinance, 11-0-54--which outline open data initiatives to be undertaken under the Preckwinkle administration.

Smart Chicago's duties include posting two new data sets per month for the County, reviewing existing catalog and preparing monthly data health and status reports and educating the public about the County's data projects. The full list of duties can be found here.

Daniel O'Neil, executive director of Smart Chicago, said the news of the agreement has been generally positive. "It's more about doing the work than about it being a big announcement."

O'Neil explains Cook County has a lot of data that's all over the place, and Smart Chicago's responsibility is to fix that.

The contract is valued at $170,000,00. The County will commit $85,000,00 annually for the next two years and the Chicago Community Foundation will provide an additional $20,000.000 in matching funds.

Nenad Tadic

Federal Government Mon Oct 28 2013

Chicagoans Rally Against Mass Surveillance

Activists rallying against mass surveillance in Federal Plaza. (Photo/Emily Brosious)

This past Friday October 26, organizers and activists with Restore the Fourth Chicago rallied for Fourth Amendment privacy rights in Chicago's Federal Plaza.

The rally was coordinated in solidarity with a national Rally Against Mass Surveillance organized by the Stop Watching Us Coalition.

"We're holding this rally on the twelfth anniversary of the signing of the Patriot Act," Billy Joe Mills, an organizer and spokesperson for Restore the Fourth Chicago, said in an interview.

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Emily Brosious

TIFs Fri Jul 12 2013

County Clerk Orr Sounds Quiet Alarm on TIF Overuse

Cook County Clerk David Orr, in a half-hour July 12 press conference releasing his office's required 2012 tax increment financing ("TIF") revenue report, highlighted the enormous amount of revenue siphoned from Chicago and Cook County taxpayers into TIF districts, and called for early declaration of surpluses within Chicago to fund needs like schools. Observing that billions of dollars have flowed into the now-over-500 districts, Orr released a video (embedded below) on the Clerk's website to help taxpayers grasp how the little-understood mechanisms work.

The video's tone suggests a school science filmstrip, kind of quiet in view of the alarming numbers, but this is government, not advocacy. At 2:41, over soothing guitar arpeggios, a pleasant female narrator says, "In most cases, taxpayers outside the TIFs pay more to generate the revenue requested by [their own] taxing districts." TIF critics such as the Reader's Ben Joravsky have hammered relentlessly on this, how TIFs hike your taxes, but it's easy to miss in the video unless you pause.

Orr's press conference was both longer and stronger than the official video. Noting that Chicago's collective TIF districts pull in half as many tax dollars as the City itself, Orr expressed concern that so "many taxpayer dollars are diverted into the Loop," charged that "not enough is being done in the neighborhoods," and that there has been little transparency as to how $5.5 billion in TIF dollars has been spent. He urged Mayor Emanuel and the City Council to declare a TIF surplus this year "as soon as possible" for the benefit of Chicago Public Schools, asking, "How do you explain to the kids in many of these schools that gym, music and art classes are cancelled while profitable businesses downtown ... received 25, 30, 40, 50 million?" Good question.

While Orr's remarks centered on Chicago, they echoed the same requests made by pressed suburban taxpayers for more transparency and accountability, better metrics, declarations of surpluses, and early retirement of no-longer-needed districts.

Overall, the video capably illustrates TIF workings and numbers, whose magnitude needs time to sink in, and Orr deserves credit for shining further light on what is now a gargantuan but opaque component of local governmental taxing and spending.

Jeff Smith

Federal Government Wed May 01 2013

What Were Once Vices

The summer of 1974 is memorable not only for the release of a Doobie Brothers' LP that with its hit "Black Water" would form a soundtrack for much of the coming year, but also for the resignation of Richard Nixon. As Mechanics' attorney-in-residence, and possibly the only writer here who remembers dancing to either of the aforesaid, and as a nod to Law Day, I agreed to cover the forum last night at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics in Hyde Park featuring current and past U.S. Attorneys General Eric Holder and John Ashcroft. Moderated by former Chicago law school dean Geoffrey Stone, the event highlighted the publication of Restoring Justice: The Speeches of Attorney General Edward Levi, by Jack Fuller. Fuller, former Chicago Tribune editor and publisher, interrupted his long journalism career to serve as an assistant to Edward H. Levi during Levi's stint as the country's top lawyer during the Ford Administration.

That 1975 appointment, of course, plucking Levi from the presidency of the University of Chicago, was a direct response to a national crisis in confidence in the Justice Department specifically, and in government generally. Watergate and related scandals saw lawyer-President Nixon impeached and resign, two of Levi's predecessors as Attorney General convicted of perjury, and the White House counsel plead guilty to obstruction of justice. Fuller's book debuts amidst the 40th anniversary of the scandals, cover-ups, shocking revelations, and legal-political drama that overshadowed much else in the nation in 1972-74. Since some of the same themes that then gripped the U.S. reverberate today -- electronic surveillance of Americans, bombings abroad ordered by the executive branch, and the power of the Presidency itself -- the forum held promise of potential fireworks and relevancy. The Institute did a pro job at logistics and presentation, and, let's be clear, is not required to offer all points of view. Unfortunately, what could have been more provocative ended up, by virtue of lack of balance, as a soft promo for continued perpetual war and expanded executive branch power, with only nods of concern to clampdown on civil liberties and ever-eroding privacy. I have to wonder if that's what Edward Levi would have wanted.

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Jeff Smith

Open Government Wed Apr 10 2013

King of the Rubber Stamp

By Dick Simpson

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is truly king of Chicago's rubber stamp City Council.

In his first two years in office, he enjoyed more support than Boss Richard J. Daley or his legacy, Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Mayor Emanuel has more control over the council than even Mayor Edward J. Kelly, a co-founder of the Cook County Democratic Machine.

This is counter to his claim a year and a half ago: "I said we were going form a new partnership between... the mayor and the city council — that voters didn't want Council Wars and they also didn't want a city council that would be a rubber stamp." But despite his claim, we got a rubber stamp council.

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Mechanics / Comments (2)

Open Government Fri Feb 08 2013

The Instant Pain of EveryBlock's Demise

The abrupt death of Everyblock caused almost a sense of panic on the internet, particularly among the new media class, and for a good reason. Everyblock was a brilliant concept that instantly became an invaluable tool for people curious about their communities; and not just the internet savvy, but anybody with internet access and the facility to do a Google search. In Chicago the sudden shuttering may have been felt a little more deeply; Everyblock was one of the gems of Chicago's new media/open data start-up community.

Outside of that parochialism, Everyblock was unique because its principals recognized one of the impossible contradictions of contemporary media: the World is at our fingertips, with the exception of our particular neighborhood. It smacks of the old poem by G.K. Chesterton, which pointed out the tension between lofty ideals and the material necessity and hard work of living in the real world:

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (4)

Privatization Tue Apr 24 2012

Capital Strikes, Capital Flight, and the Wholly Privatized City

In approving with no modifications Mayor Emanuel's infrastructure trust plan today, the City Council took another step towards ensuring their own irrelevance and wholly privatizing the operations of Chicago. It also took another step towards building up the Mayor's 30-second campaign commercial for whatever higher office he's envisioning (so far, he's got "won the longest school day in the country" and "made the tough decisions to balance the budget"; of course, "took on the special interests (workers)" is a given). They can't be wholly blamed, though. There's little room for them, or any local (and even state) legislatures to maneuver. The corporate tactics of capital strikes and threats of flight have proven their worth. Cities and states have been starved for well over a decade, and now we're reduced to auctioning off what we own to meet our obligations.

In a piece on the Infrastructure Trust last week, I said that it wasn't an inherently terrible idea, in part because there's really no other feasible way to raise the money. Issuing general obligation bonds wouldn't be terrible different, the federal government doesn't spend money on infrastructure any more (at least not in a direct way not routed through private pockets) and the city's wealthiest institutions and individuals are unwilling to pay higher taxes--in fact, are unwilling to pay any taxes that aren't offset by massive welfare entitlements, as the ongoing tax increment financing boondoggle demonstrates.

Taking a step back and considering the broad view, this is an astounding progression of events. Over the last 25 years, Chicago's corporate and political leadership has drained the city of revenue through creation of TIFs as a condition to invest capital in neighborhoods--the whole point of a TIF is that available capital is being withheld until the public provides better incentives for its investment. The billions of dollars diverted into these funds contribute to not only to budget shortfalls but, amazingly, increase taxes on middle class taxpayers, as the school district and other bodies have to raise their tax levy to meet their obligations.

At the same time, the city's corporate powerhouses not only withhold investing capital without generous givebacks, but also threaten to leave if their taxes (euphemistically called the "business climate") are not satisfactory.

The result is a public sector starved of revenue which must then turn to selling off (or "long-term leasing-off") its assets. This in turn, by the way, reduces a city's credit-worthiness even more, making it more difficult to issue bonds in the future and narrowing the city's tax base.

This isn't just random dot connecting; it's actually how investors view Infrastructure Trust vehicles. Consider this bit of finance news from last year:

Earlier this month AMP Capital Investors was appointed by Irish Life Investment Managers to advise on its $1.5bn Irish Infrastructure Trust. The fund is expected to acquire key assets such as airports when the Irish government begins selling down assets to meet its obligations.

And this:

[The Irish trust] will provide crucial liquidity to a sector which has, and will continue to be, squeezed of capital. At the same time valuations for infrastructure assets should be low, given the weak macroeconomic outlook, with BMI anticipating a double dip recession to hit in 2012.

Investors in infrastructure trusts are not interested in helping communities (we, a community, are leasing the assets) getting to a place of healthy revenue capable of meeting obligations and investing in long-term projects. To the contrary; the more a community is starved of revenue, the more it'll have to auction off assets. The more it has to auction off assets, the fewer options it has to raise revenue. And on and on.

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Ramsin Canon

Privatization Mon Apr 16 2012

It's Not the Privatization, It's the Privatization

This morning a coalition of organizations opposed to Mayor Emanuel's proposed Infrastructure Trust Fund urged City Council Finance Committee members to vote on the proposal, calling it "the Great Chicago Sell-Off."

The idea of an infrastructure trust is to avoid funding needed and desirous infrastructure projects--such as public transit upkeep and expansion, building modernization, etc.--with debt. So instead of issuing general obligation bonds, attractive to borrowers because they're backed by property and other taxes the city has unlimited power to raise, the city would get private capital from wealth funds, banks, and other institutions, on the idea that the project would be administered by and in part controlled by that institutions, which would earn a return on its investment over the term of the interest.

So as a hypothetical example, the City wants to build a bus rapid transit line up and down Milwaukee Avenue. Rather than issue bonds that put the city further in debt, members of the Infrastructure Trust like, Macquarie and JP Morgan, put up $500 million to widen Milwaukee Avenue, put in the appropriate curbs, compensate the parking meter consortium for the lost spaces, buy the buses, and put in street signs and benches. In return, Trust members would be given a property interest in the BRT for a period of say 50 years, with the revenue generated either being divvied or going directly to them, either in full for the period of the agreement or up to a pre-defined ceiling that allows a nice return.

In the abstract, there's no real problem with this. We as a city don't have a lot of options. Illinois is broke beyond fixing and the federal government lost its appetite for funding major urban infrastructure projects generations ago. The general atmosphere of anti-tax hysteria makes general obligations a safe investment in theory but risky in practice. If these private institutions are willing to put up the money to develop the city's infrastructure for a similar or even slightly higher rate of return that the city would pay to bond holders, then there is no real loss to the city.

The abstract privatization isn't the problem, of course. It's the reality of it. Consider the hypothetical. In that hypothetical, the Infrastructure Trust would need to reimburse another privatizer, the consortium that bought the parking meter concession, for loss of spaces. This is a considerable cost over the life of a project. The city's agreement with that consortium tied our hands when it comes to planning our own city.

Consider in turn this story about the privatized downtown parking garages. In that agreement, the City promised not to permit competing parking garages to open up nearby. From the investor's point of view, this makes sense; they want a safe investment. From the public's point of view, it's an outrage. First of all, it's hard to see how such a promise serves the public interest, since it reduces competition for parking and thus protects a high-priced monopoly. But also, it seems like an outrageous delegation of the city's general legislative powers.

Privatization is supposed to make things more "efficient" by introducing "market-signals." In reality, however, privatization of public assets usually means binding the city's legislature--meaning us, the people--to long-term agreements that bind our ability to plan and design our city as we please, and keep us indebted to private interests, many of them with no real interest in making Chicago a better place.

A similar problem popped up with the parking meter concessionaire, too as a result of disability parking and its supposed deleterious effect on their bottom line. These agreements also tend to include arbitration agreements that are costly and keep "the City" (i.e., you and I) from going to Court over disagreements in an adversarial system that lets sunlight into operations.

Concessionaires are looking for safe, long-term investments. The more city assets they de facto control, the safer their investment, because the density of privately-controlled city infrastructure cuts into revenue generating opportunities for the city (which in turn makes it more expensive to issue bonds).

The safest investment are those that are most amenable to making a profit--more "monetizable" if you will. This inverts the rationale of infrastructure building. It's why Chicago has such a maddeningly redundant train system. The original lines were privately built, operating under charters granted by the City Council. The train operators knew the best and quickest way to make their money back was to have their train line touch the central business district, thus the creation of the Loop. But the whole point of infrastructure is not to maximize existing revenue opportunities, but to build up and out--to create new ones, even where there is risk, serving the underserved, and experimenting with new forms of infrastructure.

From a planning perspective, the concern with an Infrastructure Trust is that it privatizes our infrastructure decision-making. Rather than building and developing for the common good and to serve the underserved, we will be building and developing only where it is safe to do so, for the smallest cost for maximum return. And where such a decision may conflict with grander, more expensive, and potentially less lucrative plans, the binding, long-term agreements wins out.

As the story on the Monroe Garages indicates, these agreements are also often counter-productive. They lock the city into protecting non-competitive behavior for extremely long terms, with penalties that make forcing change or cancelling agreements costly enough to inhibit public innovation. It makes no sense for the city to agree not to permit competing parking garages, just as it made no sense for the city to guarantee the existence of parking spaces--and think how this inherently impacts the city's ability to move towards a more transit-friendly, bike-friendly planning posture. Consistent privatizing of assets creates a hodge-podge of potentially conflicting property interests owned by outside parties that keeps the city--us--from planning for a future that could, and should, look quite different from today.

From a democracy perspective, the Trust presents the twin problems accountability and transparency. Aldermen had to fight to get the Mayor to include a legislator on the body that makes decision--presumably an alderman he appoints--which does not augur well for the accountability and responsiveness of this body. It creates another appointed body immune to public pressure that further concentrates power in the person of the Mayor.

If we want a legislature that is independent of the Mayor, it'd be nice if it had some power distinct from his. With such limitless control over the Board of Education, the CTA, the CHA, and all the city's planning bodies, much of the reason the City Council can't cultivate any independence is that it has very little operational authority.

Asset privatization will create some jobs, it will modernize or improve some public assets, but it will not do so in a way that is publicly-driven, held well to account or even necessarily money-saving in a long-term sense. It isn't an inherently bad idea, particularly given the absence of lots of other options.

The problem in other words isn't privatization per se, it's privatization per quod.

Ramsin Canon / Comments (4)

Rahm Emanuel Tue Feb 14 2012

Transparency and Honest Counsel in the Mayor's Office

Mr. Mayor, why won't you tell this woman what your staff was saying about her dead grandchild?

That's the devastating question Chicago Tribune reporter David Kidwell leaves unasked at the end of his forceful article on the Mayor's refusal to release his staff's internal communications regarding the city's plan to build a network of red-light cameras across the city. I'm not giving a blockquote to encourage you to read the article. Go ahead, then come back. Or, open it in a new tab and switch back and--you know what, you know what you're doing.

The full transcript of Kidwell's contentious interview with the Mayor, released by the Tribune as a companion piece to the article, is a winding, gruff dialog between approaches to transparency, accountability, and even democracy. At times frankly insulting ("I mean this insulting so get it right") and at times sounding like legal wrangling in a courtroom ("You said there is a disconnect. That's a conclusion. How do you know there's a disconnect?"), Kidwell and Emanuel argue about just what transparency means and just how voters are supposed to hold their elected leaders accountable.

Throughout the interview, the Mayor is frustrated that the Tribune seems to have decided what "transparency" means--e.g., full access to internal administration decisionmaking--and passes judgment on his commitment to his transparency pledge based on their interpretation. The Mayor repeatedly chides the Tribune for ignoring the will of the voters on the matter--diminishing the Tribune's concerns as out of step with the type of transparency people want. This is, at first glance, the "voters don't care about process, just results" philosophy.

But that's not all it is, and--I can't believe I'm writing this--I have to side, with some reservations, with the Mayor.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (2)

Urban Planning Tue Dec 20 2011

Regime Theory in Chicago: A Case Study

This week, Chicago Parking Meters, LLC, the shell consortium that owns our once-public parking meters, has sent the city two bills: one to compensate it for parking by the disabled, and one to compensate it for street closures. Despite some lap yapping from the Mayor, the city has little choice but to pay these bills, either in full or mostly-in-full.

The parking meters are bemoaned as an anomalous poor choice by Mayor My Predecessor, and Mayor Emanuel has regularly shifted between jokey anger and sighing resignation as to it. The truth is though that Mayor Emanuel will have his own Parking Meters deal--probably several--before his Mayoralty ends, and that his power to govern the city--to actually govern city, not just move numbers around between departments to create superficial savings and issue press releases--is not a function of his ability to "lead" but a function of his ability to creatively supplicate.

How does Chicago's government operate? The way it actually operates is fundamentally different from the way it apparently operates. The "apparent" part: it writes laws and enforces them evenly. The way it actually operates: it makes up for a deficiency to act on its own by seeking out powerful investment institutions to partner with, offering up its coercive authority in exchange for badly needed capital. Those agreements are the regime we actually live under, not the laws on the books.

The fundamental shift towards neoliberalization of the economy and government at federal and state levels has changed how Mayors and Councils "govern" cities if they really govern them, in the classical civics-class sense, at all. Of course Emanuel, as one of the political architects of one of neoliberalization's most important structural supports, NAFTA, is not a victim of neoliberalization but an important figure in its rise. That fact is one of the reasons national elites rushed to fund his campaigns for Congress and the Fifth Floor.

In the Neoliberal City, laws, regulations, and rules are less important than relationships between political leaders and wealth, or capital. Mayor Emanuel explicitly ran for office touting his ability to "leverage" his relationships with wealthy elites. He even comically justified his immense fundraising from out-of-state and global financial elites by pointing out that because the rich like him, he'll be able to beg goodies out of them for the public.

The regime that runs the city is not about legislation and enforcement, it is about bilateral agreements, where government promises to use its power for the benefit of investment, or capital, to the greatest extent possible. Carving exceptions to law is as important, if not more important, than legislating itself.

The most stark example of this is the "Memorandum of Understanding" between the City and the University of Chicago, an agreement that could usher in major changes to the Hyde Park/Kenwood area, that was agreed upon in bilateral negotiations between the Mayor and the President of the University. The Mayor told the press he was moved to go into these high-level negotiations with the University after the President told him that in China, such building projects only took six months, whereas the bureaucracy here would lengthen it to years.

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Ramsin Canon

Open Government Thu Dec 01 2011

The Pitfalls of Mayor Emanuel's Transparency Pledge

What do people want when they demand transparency in government?

The Sunlight Foundation, a transparency watchdog group, provides this background:

Public oversight, civic participation and electoral engagement--the stuff of democratic accountability--all depend on a transparent, open government.

Indeed, transparency and openness are the very foundations for public trust; without the former the latter cannot survive. The Internet is making increased transparency cheaper, more effective, and in more demand every day as Americans come to expect instantaneous and constant access to all kinds of information.

But what kinds of information? The Sunlight Foundation focuses on "influence data," information on money flowing into politics, lobbyist information, and oversight and corruption data. They also advocate for "public means on-line," meaning that to be truly public, data and information needs to be put on-line in easily searchable and manipulable formats.

Consider Mayor Emanuel's transparency initiative. While I've poked fun at the flood of spreadsheets we've gotten, there's no doubt that the administration has done a phenomenal job of putting information--including "influence data"--on-line in extraordinarily user-friendly ways. The City's data portal allows you to look through lobbyist disclosures, spending, and registration information, with an impressive depth and breadth of information. Everything from food inspections to 311 requests are eminently searchable, allowing citizens, journalists, and researchers to track what the government knows, when it knows it, and how it is reacting to it.

But this week, the Chicago Tribune expressed some ire with the administration for refusing to release e-mails and memoranda that could shed light on the decision making that went into crafting the Mayor's water fee hikes and speeding cameras policies:

After Emanuel this fall proposed a series of fee increases to help balance his budget, the Tribune filed requests for any internal City Hall documents to show how Emanuel came up with his plans to charge homeowners and drivers more, including emails, memos and any relevant contacts with outside companies or interests.

This on the heels of an earlier report that the Mayor was "shrouding his office in secrecy":

[E]fforts to peer into the daily operations of the mayor himself -- a man with enormous say over hundreds of millions of dollars in city contracts, hiring and regulations -- are met by a stone wall.

The mayor refused Tribune requests for his emails, government cellphone bills and his interoffice communications with top aides, arguing it would be too much work to cross out information the government is allowed to keep private. After lengthy negotiations to narrow its request for two months of these records, the newspaper was told that almost all of the emails had been deleted.

Illinois' freedom of information (FOI) law explicitly exempts "deliberative materials" from its requirements as to what must be made public upon request:

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Ramsin Canon

Open Government Wed Aug 24 2011

Transparency Ex Post and Ex Ante

Since taking office just about a hundred days ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pleased open government and transparency activists by creating a myriad of tools and data portals to open government information. All city employee salaries have been made easily accessible by the public, as well as 311 service requests, building permits, lobbyist data, and more.

At the risk of acquiring a John Kass-style cheap hater reputation, I had a good amount of fun making light of these actually impressive initiatives on Twitter, where I may or may not have referred to them as "democracy by spreadsheet." Recently, WBEZ ran a report looking at whether the Mayor's transparency initiatives were more appearance than reality.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (2)

Good Government/Reform Fri Jun 10 2011

Inspector General: Minority Contracting Program "Beset By Fraud and Abuse"

Chicago's Inspector General's Office (IGO) has released a scathing study of the city's minority- and women-owned business program, calling it "beset by fraud and abuse," and cataloging the fundamental problems with the program. The MWB program has popped up in a variety of different scandals, with organized crime and corrupt politicians abusing technocratic discretion and inherently faulty oversight for personal gain in subversion of the program's purpose.

Among the recommendations for correcting the program:

  • Shifting the City's focus away from MWBE certification to monitoring MWBE compliance
  • Accurately tracking and reporting actual payments to MWBEs
  • Establishing meaningful contract-specific goal setting for program participation
  • Granting waivers from MWBE goals for construction contracts where appropriate to allow for honesty in contractor bidding and ensure better MWBE compliance
  • Collecting penalties from firms that do not satisfy MWBE requirements

You can sniff which recommendation most addresses the corruption problem: certification versus monitoring. Certification means a firm is certified as minority or woman owned in an obscure bureaucratic process, which essentially grants certain contractors a privilege they carry with them. This makes that certification extremely valuable and low-risk: once you have it you are most likely to keep it, and you just have that one hurdle, certification, to cross. A lack of on-going monitoring of compliance makes the creation of phony minority- or woman-owned businesses extremely attractive, and makes "smoothing the process" of actually getting it much easier.

The full report is after the jump.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (1)

Open Government Wed Jun 08 2011

City Employee Salaries Brought to You by the City

You have to give it up so far to Mayor Emanuel's tech team. They have been on a steady drive to make available as much general data as they can think to get on-line, and provide it in a supremely easy-to-manipulate way.

Their latest is a salary database for all city employees. You can get in there and do custom searches, save views, and even embed results. For example, here are the highest paid people in the Mayor's Office:

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (3)

Education Sat Jan 29 2011

Expansion of Charter Schools Will Create a Private School System, Not School Choice

Is a policy of charter expansion a sound reform plan for our schools? Agreeing our schools need reform doesn't mean we need to accept any reform plan, but only the best reform plan. The argument for charter school expansion rests on a number of premises and inferences: mainly, that collectively bargained work rules make it more difficult to cultivate the best teaching; and that sharp competition between schools will increase efficiency and improve outcomes. For critical thinking purposes, let's take a look at this argument and see if there are any pressing objections.

Let's concede for a start that a major problem with the public schools is work rules that make firing and incentivizing teachers difficult, thus confounding the efforts of school operators to cultivate the best teaching.

Does that mean that school administrators should be allowed to fire teachers with "bad cause or no cause at all"? In other words, is the only alternative to the status quo its exact opposite?

Basic reason says this is not the case. There must be other possible and viable alternatives. For example: the grievance procedure could be simplified or changed; peer review could be instituted or, within the range of options, grievance steps could be reduced. The "good cause" standards could be independently policed or more explicitly stated, etc. These are all possible alternatives, and assuming that charter proponents believe no binding work rules is the best solution, we can infer that a minimum of binding work rules would still be better than the status quo. So these alternatives are also viable.

Knowing there are possible and viable alternatives, we still needn't jettison the proposed solution (banning of union rules) unless it is either not possible or not viable, leaving a preferred solution somewhere in between.

The expansion of private school operators promised by Rahm Emanuel and Gery Chico will turn teachers into at-will employees. This impacts who gets fired and how, but that isn't the primary objection. More importantly it adversely effects the maintenance of professional standards. Charter teachers regularly complain about being made to teach classes they are not qualified to teach or grade levels they are not certified to instruct. Even if this is merely anecdotal, the fact that it is possible and not remediable should disqualify it as a structural reform. Lack for formal grievance makes it difficult for teachers to prevent their own termination, but it also makes it impossible for the professionals to police the profession, which by definition unravels the profession itself. As a policy, it is not clearly viable.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (10)

Election 2011 Wed Jan 19 2011

The Next Mayor's Power Instinct

Miguel Del Valle is being considered the progressive candidate for a variety of reasons. His record of independence from so-called "Machine politics" is considerably free of the spots found in those of Emanuel and Chico in particular; no organizational or professional ties to Mayor Daley. His policy positions on schools and teachers, the environment, and housing position him to the left of the field. While these positions are more liberal, they are also not controversial; meaning that, generally speaking, they are probably not significantly to the left of the average Chicagoan.

But there's something deeper in Del Valle's politics that may warm the cockles of a progressive's heart while simultaneously causing the city's power players, including its media organizations, to tremble with febrile dreams.

Based on his public statements about the relationship of the Mayor to the City Council, Del Valle appears to believe that conflict compels collaboration which leads to stronger results. In other words, by formally decentralizing power so that no one party or institution can simply act-and-make-so, they will be forced to negotiate one with the other on terms equitable to each, and thereby the best feasible solution will emerge.

Del Valle told the Sun-Times this:

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (7)

Elections Tue Nov 02 2010

Sports Dollars in Politics

This article was submitted by Andrew Kachel

"Money is the mother's milk of politics." -Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh

Back when Mike Ditka half-assedly ran for the US Senate then immediately backed out, he had this to say: "Five, six years ago I would have jumped on it and would have ran with it, and I know this, that I would make a good senator, because I would be for the people." Ditka said this at an impromptu news conference in front of Mike Ditka's Steakhouse on the near North Side.

Over the last two decades, American athletes and coaches as a group have been eerily quiet with their political opinions. Gilbert Arenas famously noted in the last presidential election that he wasn't voting -- both candidates were going to tax his enormous salary. When asked why he didn't back civil rights champion Harvey Gantt in the North Carolina Senate race, Michael Jordan shrewdly replied, "Republicans buy sneakers, too."

There's more than a little pressure from owners and management for athletes to conduct themselves as apolitical entities. PR coaches know this from the moment players step into their offices and ingratiate it into their psyches. Pro athletes aren't even supposed to criticize officiating (fines are inevitable when they do), so their ideas on the direction of foreign and domestic policy ride the third rail. Reporters don't ask and players don't tell.

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Mechanics / Comments (4)

Good Government/Reform Mon Nov 01 2010

A Documentary on the Practice of "Gerrymandering"

Bill Mundell is the executive producer for a documentary filmed called appropriately enough Gerrymandering. It's about the practice of drawing political districts with the intent of assuring a desired result, mainly for instance to insure that an incumbent will remain in office. Or to explain further to create a district that will allow the incumbent to remain in office.

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Daley Tue Aug 10 2010

Nobody Does It Better, Makes Me Sad For Ourselves

Governance by sloganeering results in things like this:

The private parking meter company that runs the metered street parking system in Chicago expects to reap at least $11.6 billion in revenues over the 75-year term of its lease deal with the city, according to a new report from Bloomberg News.

The Chicago News Cooperative recently reported that the 218 percent rate hike introduced since the parking privatization has barely reduced meter use, resulting in better-than-expected profits for the investors. The new profit estimate goes well beyond the earnings projected last year in documents uncovered by the Chicago News Cooperative, the first time that the internal financial projections of the privately held partnerships were disclosed.

Did you know profit-seeking organizations can do everything much better than government? It's a truism because lots of people say it. If you inject the profit motive into something, then it will work better. Every time. We don't need to study it. Just know that it's true because it's true.


Mayor Daley's reckless pursuit of "public-private partnerships" based solely on his wafer-thin rationale that the private sector can do everything better than government, has essentially cost the next three generations of Chicagoans billions of dollars both in lost revenue and jacked-up parking costs. At least, we should hope that is his sole motivation; because we could be less charitable and say that shameful impuissance also contributed. Mayor Daley is so terrified of making a "hard" (also obvious) decision regarding raising revenue that he would sell off city assets in a panic. This the "CEO Mayor" that BusinessWeek fell in love with?

Ramsin Canon

Open Government Wed Jun 30 2010

Sunlight Foundation Reviews Illinois

The Sunlight Foundation's reporting group put out their short review of the state's transparency efforts, and found them lacking. Head over to see their full report.

In a state where good government groups have been working to increase transparency since the days of Al Capone, how is Illinois doing in bringing their transparency efforts into the 21st century? Quite well, say open government boosters like US Public Interest Research Group, who recently ranked the state third in their review of state websites designed to get crucial spending data online. Still, local transparency advocates can teach state officials a thing or two about making a site useful to reporters.

Ramsin Canon

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Parents Still Steaming, but About More Than Just Boilers

By Phil Huckelberry / 2 Comments

It's now been 11 days since the carbon monoxide leak which sent over 80 Prussing Elementary School students and staff to the hospital. While officials from Chicago Public Schools have partially answered some questions, and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has informed that he will be visiting the school to field more questions on Nov. 16, many parents remain irate at the CPS response to date. More...


Substance, Not Style, the Source of Rahm's Woes

By Ramsin Canon / 2 Comments

It's not surprising that some of Mayor Emanuel's sympathizers and supporters are confusing people's substantive disputes with the mayor as the effect of poor marketing on his part. It's exactly this insular worldview that has gotten the mayor in hot... More...

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